Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The Rise and Inevitable Fall of Speakeasy Comics -- By now you've heard the news that Speakeasy has called it a day (I first saw the news at Johanna's).
A couple of friends of mine were involved in the company in varying capacities, so I take no joy at all in seeing the coffin slam shut; keep in mind that this is the death of dreams of some aspiring creators. But it's hardly a surprise.
Just so you see the signs next time, here's what I thought was wrong with the company from the very beginning:
1. It was all about Adam Fortier. In the company's earliest days, the Speakeasy website and all the many press releases (another sign in itself) always went into vivid detail about the greatness of Adam Fortier, his wonderful career in comics, and how he was the key mover and shaker making this great new company happen. It was pretty obvious that Speakeasy was, to a large extent in its earliest days, a big ego-boost for this guy few had ever heard of (and few will ever remember). For all I know he may, indeed, be the greatest guy who ever lived -- but when so much energy is spent in the crucial launch period of a new company hyping someone who isn't a creator and has no real importance to the artform of comics, well, honestly, the warning bells were going off for me from the very beginning. CrossGen's Mark Alessi with all his millions and his well-appointed Florida compound similarly used his early press to stroke his own ego, but he'll be longer-remembered than Fortier because of his more virulent persona. Fortier may have screwed up starting up a new company, but he hardly made the impression on the comics community at large that Alessi (or Mike S. Miller, to name another toxic cretin in this category) did.
2. Bad Comics. Not that I know The Secret to Surviving in Comics, but as someone who has observed the industry for over three decades, in my opinion you start a successful company one quality book at a time. I will never forget getting the first (and only) package of review copies from Speakeasy; there were four or five titles in the package, and between one and four issues of each title. There was not one that was any fucking good at all (this was before Rocketo, I should note). There was, in fact, not even one I could read all the way through. Of all those ten or fifteen comics that were in that package, the only one whose title I even remember was Atomika, the first issue of which had an Alex Ross cover. For your initial batch of comics to be so unmemorable (the very best of them were mediocre, the worst downright fucking awful) demonstrates a nascent publisher more interested in creating the illusion of a "line" of comics than actually building a quality stable of books that people will want to follow and tell others about.
3. Too Much, Too Fast. This is almost redundant given the previous warning sign, but even if the comics they were publishing were any damned good at all (which they weren't), Speakeasy kept trying to build the illusion of momentum by continuously signing new creators (...no one had heard of) and announcing new titles (...that no one wanted to read, or was ever given any compelling reason to investigate, Rocketo notwithstanding).
4. Fiction and Creator Rights. Here's an opinion few are likely to agree with, but look around. What North American publishers since the 1970s have started up and survived? With the exception of Image (which kind of recognized creator's rights even at the start) and AiT (which recognizes creator's rights), not one that is primarily concerned with fictional adventure stories aimed at overgrown boys in need of fuel for their power fantasies (and even Image had to evolve past that to continue into the current day). Companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf and AdHouse Books all started publishing comics with one or two titles, built slow, saw what worked (and crucially, what didn't), and adjusted accordingly over time. In the long run, they all have carved a niche for themselves by publishing work that is often non-fiction or autobiographical (or close to it), and that is usually creator-owned. From the very beginning, it was pretty apparent that Adam Fortier wanted to create a line of comics that he could earn a large profit from (despite his own lack of apparent creative talent) and probably license to other media. It was obvious to me from the very beginning that, intentionally or not, Fortier was following a template laid out by Mark Alessi with CrossGen just a few years earlier. How can anyone be surprised that it turned out much the same way? The market has all the adventure fiction it wants from Marvel and DC, just as Viz and TokyoPop more or less dominate the Manga arena. If you want to create a new comics publishing company that survives, you're going to have to think much farther out of the box than small minds like Mike S. Miller, Mark Alessi or Adam Fortier.
5. Those Fucking Eyes. The Speakeasy logo. A nicely-produced piece of commercial art that said nothing more than "Hey, you've never heard of us, but look at this cool logo!" Again, the focus so clearly was on anything but creating good comics.
6. Creating Good Comics. At the end of the day, this really is the only thing that will make an impact on the market, and even then, if you're going to try, you need to prepare and be fully-funded to ride out years of no one giving a shit about your company. Gary Groth and Kim Thompson kept Fantagraphics alive during some pretty dire years by subsidizing their comics line with out-and-out (in-and-out?) pornography, but at least they were using it to keep good comics like Eightball, Hate and Love and Rockets alive. At the risk of repeating myself, no strategy will help a comics company last long-term if the comics aren't any damned good at all. And for the most part, Speakeasy's weren't.
7. Rocketo. Okay, from what I hear, this title didn't suck. Apparently it was in the Darwyn Cooke COMICS ARE FUN AGAIN! axis. If Fortier had been smart, he would have found a way to capitalize on the good word of mouth this title received, and recreated his company from the ground up, retrenching in the wake of his only critical success. Perhaps Rocketo should have been their only title for a while. But from the available evidence, nothing was done to build on the creative success of this book. I can't truly judge Rocketo myself, though, because...
8. I Never Saw Rocketo - Part 1. For a title that people were saying good things about, there was no visible campaign to promote Rocketo to the fan press that I was aware of (not only am I a critic and the owner of a site about comics, but I talk to other critics and owners of sites about comics, too).
8. I Never Saw Rocketo - Part 2. I never saw Rocketo in a comics shop, and after I would say the first three months of publishing, I never saw any other Speakeasy titles, either. Within 12 weeks, the company had disappeared beneath the radar of all the shops in my area, possibly still on some pull lists, but with no titles on the shelves, no new readers could ever be brought in. Whatever good will an Alex Ross cover on the first issue of Atomika won the startup publisher, within just a few weeks it was clear that the retailers in my area (and likely everywhere else, too) had already lost faith in the line and was not risking their titles stinking up the back room in the same way all those CrossGen titles continue to do.
This is not meant as a slam at those who wanted to create comics at Speakeasy. Creating comics is a special sort of torment, and for those that succeed (especially in creating good ones), I have nothing but respect. I do believe (and the evidence suggests) that Adam Fortier took grave advantage of the dream of many would-be creators to get into comics. But for all the reasons outlined above -- thoughts that in some cases have been simmering since the very first inkling I had that the company existed -- I can't say that anything that's happened has been much of a surprise at all.
To anyone who wants to "break into comics," I implore you to read the Eddie Campbell interview in the recent Comics Journal. If you want to "break into comics," just make comics. Don't worry about "lines" and "licensing" and "logos" and "press releases." MAKE SOME FUCKING COMICS ALREADY. Only by making comics can you improve your writing and/or art. When you get good enough, COMICS WILL COME AFTER YOU.
To the creators who got burned, good luck in the future. And to everyone, please remember that there are oftentimes signs that new publishers do not have either good comics or your best interests as their primary goal. All you have to do is look at the evidence and judge for yourself what the ultimate mission of the company is. If it's creating good comics and enduring in a tough marketplace, I think you'll find that the evidence won't look at all like the disastrous Speakeasy model.
Update: Tom Spurgeon looks at Speakeasy's demise, and his overall experience of the company seems pretty in-synch with mine.
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